, PARIS, France, May 3 – France’s unprecedented presidential race has thrown many voters into emotional turmoil, causing nerves to fray around the dinner table, at the office and on social media.
Rather than vote for centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron or far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, about one in four say they plan to abstain in Sunday’s run-off.
Seven in 10 voters are unhappy with the choice before them, a survey found, as France heads into uncharted waters with the traditional right and left absent from the second round for the first time since 1958.
The dilemma is expressed as a choice “between the plague and cholera” at protest marches around the country.
The traditional May Day marches reflected the disarray in the electorate, with competing protests — some clamouring for a united front against Le Pen and others rejecting both candidates.
“I may very well be a dyed-in-the-wool leftie, but I’m voting for Macron,” said 80-year-old pensioner Constantin Sinelnikoff after taking part in an anti-Le Pen march in Paris.
“I never imagined the National Front could get so big,” he said.
But Vanessa Harounyan, a teacher in the southern port of Marseille, said she was thinking about abstaining.
“I loathe Marine Le Pen, she makes me sick, but I’m thinking maybe France needs a real jolt,” Harounyan said.
Many people voice similar animosity towards Macron, a 39-year-old former banker who was the protege of unpopular outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande before striking out on his own to form his centrist movement last year.
– ‘France Torn Apart’ –
“Macron’s a financier, a money man, an opportunist,” said Rose Rodriquez Correa, 59, a medical secretary in Paris who plans to abstain on Sunday.
“It’s become a very tense situation,” said Gerard Siad, a 52-year-old Parisian businessman. “It’s frightening to see France so fractured.”
“France Torn Apart” ran the Le Parisien headline on Tuesday, looking back on the May 1 marches.
“This year, Workers’ Day has projected an image of a divided, anxious country,” the paper said.
The political landscape has changed radically since Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the nation and the world by reaching the presidential run-off against Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Voters put aside their politics to hand conservative Chirac a landslide re-election victory with a 64-point margin.
In contrast, Macron is currently forecast to win by a much smaller, though still significant, margin of 19 points on Sunday.
Analysts say the financial crisis of 2008 created new fault lines, notably over the role of the European Union, as well as over a growing wealth gap.
“New divisions are emerging between people who do not understand each other anymore because they don’t have the same life experience,” said communications expert Arnaud Mercier.
“Society has become harsh for a lot of people,” said Mercier, who teaches at Paris University. “Attitudes are hardening, you see it on social media.”
“It’s horrible,” said a woman who gave her name only as Anne because she opposes Le Pen but lives in a stronghold of her anti-immigrant National Front (FN) party in southern France.
“I spend all my time at work trying to avoid talking about the elections. I’m learning things about my colleagues that I’d rather not know.”
Anne’s daughter Zoe “unfriended” about 30 people on Facebook before finally deactivating her account, appalled by posts supporting Le Pen or calls for voters to abstain.